Riding

He's Kinda Famous

This longtime fisherman is not only a reality TV star – he’s also a horseback-riding aficionado.

From America’s Horse

Editor’s Note: Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” is still a popular show, and it aired its ninth season this year. When this article first appeared in America’s Horse in 2009, there were five fishing crews. While the Time Bandit, Wizard, and Northwestern are still featured crews, there have also been four new crews added for a total of seven fishing crews.

“I’m a big fan of your show,” the man gushed as he ushered his daughter into the barn for her riding lesson, while at the same time trying to shake Andy Hillstrand’s hand. It’s a common reaction. With a teenager’s ornery grin, dimples that must be attached to his tonsils and an actor’s good looks, Andy shrugs off the celebrity nametag. He’s one of the captains of the Time Bandit, a boat that he and his brothers, Johnathan and Neal, own and use for their commercial crab-fishing business in Alaska. Andy’s celebrity comes from his appearance on the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch,” one of the most successful reality programs on TV. It’s odd to him that the people who have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world – fishing on the frigid, wicked Bering Sea – can achieve celebrity status. But that’s show biz.

The Hillstrands are one of the five crews featured on “Deadliest Catch,” which, since its first season in 2005, has documented the events aboard the fishing vessels Time Bandit, Northwestern, Cornelia-Marie, Wizard and Maverick during the Alaskan king and opilio crab fishing seasons. Johnathan captains the Time Bandit during king crab season, Andy is the captain during opilio season, and Neal is the boat’s engineer. Andy and Johnathan are the two Hillstrands whom “Deadliest Catch” viewers get to know best. In the off season and on dry ground, in a warmer climate, Andy and his wife, Sabrina, have a small barn near Evansville, Indiana, where they offer horseback riding lessons and horse camps for kids. That’s also where Andy works with his American Quarter Horse, Hobbys Skipa Rio, aka “Rio.”

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“Hobby Horse Acres is about as far from an ocean as anyone can be in the continental United States,” says Andy, who explains that they chose to move to southern Indiana after living in Alaska for 39 years because the winters in Indiana aren’t as bad as those in Alaska. “We named the farm after the horse Hobby Horse because he’s in Rio’s pedigree – and not because the farm is a hobby. The farm keeps me humble and honest and gives me a different view of life from the sea and commercial fishing.” “People might laugh if they were to see a Bering Sea crab-boat captain shoveling horse manure in 90-degree heat, but that’s me,” Andy adds. “This life is not a vacation I am taking from the Bering Sea. I am Andy Hillstrand, and this is the other half of my existence that I do not share with the crabs or my brother Johnathan.” Andy and Sabrina say they found horses the way most people find things – by happenstance. “If someone had told me 20 years ago that I would be living on a farm in Indiana raising horses and teaching kids how to ride, I would have laughed,” Andy says. “But that was before our daughter Cassie turned 8. We were living in Homer (Alaska) at the time; she told us she wanted a horse for her birthday. All 8-year old girls want a horse. I wished she had wanted a skiff or me to take her fishing. But like good parents, we bought her a horse.” As the dutiful parents hauled their daughter to horse shows and barrel races, Andy says he was interested in horses only for Cassie’s sake. “Horses failed to seize my interest,” he says. Until he met a natural horseman from Oregon named Steve Rother.

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“He asked me if I would like to really get to know horses,” Andy says. “Once I understood how a horse thinks, I could understand his universe. I approached horses differently, as if we were suddenly equals. I think some people deal with horses as if they are machines to be put in gear and driven at different speeds and with maneuvers, like they are motorcycles. The horse as a unique creature began to intrigue me, and the more I learned about them, the more I was drawn into their world. (Horses) helped me gain a new perspective on just about everything, including the people I loved and those I would deal with as business associates and friends.” After two weeks of groundwork, using the horse trainer’s techniques, Andy won a barrel race. In 1998, he won the Alaska National Barrel Horse Association barrel racing reserve title. Then he was the state NBHA champ for two years running – 1999 and 2000. In 2001, Andy decided he needed a horse of his own instead of riding his daughter’s horses, so he went shopping with a friend in Oregon. “That’s when I saw this 2-year-old stud colt running around,” Andy says. “He just had this ‘look.’ And he was like a big ol’ puppy dog. They had been breeding him, so he was kind of stud-y, but I went ahead and bought him, had him moved to Alaska and had him gelded.” Nowadays, instead of barrel racing, Andy spends time perfecting his horsemanship with Rio and Rio’s son, Rios Midnight Hobby, aka “Midnight.” “Rio’s my buddy,” Andy says. “I think it’s pretty cool that he follows me around and nickers at me. My wife says she has actually seen him get depressed after I’ve left to go fishing. I love sitting on the patio early in the morning with a cup of coffee and just watching my horses.” Andy has also taken an interest in working cow horse and reining, but hasn’t tried competing in either event. “Once you ride a horse and everything is working, it is a beautiful experience and as close to flying on the ground as you will ever get,” he says. “The more I learned about them, the more I needed this knowledge. I was learning to be a better person through horsemanship. If I can read body language in a horse without talking to it – by the set of his jaw, his ears, how his eyes blink, where his tail is at – I can look at people’s faces and know what they are signaling with their eyes and mouth.”